I have a question for you. Do you remember back when you were little and you had the “Monster in the closet” or the “Boogie-Man” that you swore was out to get you in your dreams? Maybe it was after watching that first horror movie you know you know weren’t suppose to watch, but your older brother or sister wanted to scare the bajeezus out of you just for shits and giggles. Maybe it was just something that terrified you for no particular reason that just gave you the heebie-jeebies. You remember your childish fright creature, don’t you? I do.
Believe it or not, mine was… Mr. Snuffleupagus.
Yep. The weird imaginary friend of Big Bird on Sesame Street. Ask my brothers. I was scared. To. Death. Of Suffleupagus. Every time he’d come on screen I would freak the heck out, crying, hollering, ducking my head in the couch cushions, anything to escape what I thought was impending doom coming at me. My brothers teased me about it until at least my 20s, no joke.(They also teased me about Donna Summer, who I also thought was scary for some odd reason?!) But then I grew up. I realized that “Snuffy” was not scary at all. He was fictional. He couldn’t kill me. He was friendly. In fact, I actually begin to think he was kind of… cuddly.
Three years ago, when I started this project, Your Friendly Neighborhood Black Man, I had a point to make. It was a play off of a popular fictional character, Spider-Man, who often describes himself as “Your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man”. He tells this to most people who, thanks to the bad press he receives, see a masked man as a threat or someone to be afraid of and not what he actually is; a hero or someone who wants to help. And like the fictional Spider-Man, that is often how many black males are perceived, despite our intentions. We are seen as a threat or someone to be afraid of. And yes, just like Spider-Man, this is a perception often produced through the media. But I’ve also noticed that this fear is born of other sources as well.
Not to get into any specifics, but there have been several occasions where, in my personal and professional life, I have come across certain individuals who I could not help but to notice the different ways they would interact with me than with other contemporaries. These individuals, typically white males or females, I notice that they are able to interact with other white males or females and be social or cordial, conversational or otherwise pleasant. However, in my presence, I didn’t get any of that. These individuals are not too talkative or conversational. They’re most typically uncomfortable, squeamish and often they’ve been spiteful or aggressively terse. And it’s extremely noticeable. I’m not sure if they are able to notice it, but I am. And others who have similar experiences notice this as well. And given how I was raised, I found this deeply troubling.
Now, as often as this has happened, it initially confused me. I didn’t get why this would happen. I would think “I wouldn’t do this to you, so why would you act this way towards me?” But then that forced me to think about why I would not act in that way. I was raised in a middle class neighborhood, in a middle class community, in a predominately white city. Outside of my parents and my brothers, the people I had to interact with on a daily basis, teachers, classmates, neighbors, friends, they were typically white. This was my life. It was the world I knew. So as I grew older, my ability to interact with people who were of a different culture or race or ethnicity of my own was something I had to have. So, in my personal and professional life, I was functionally able to employ that same ability with others comfortably. But to my realization, not everyone has had as sustained experiences with people outside of their world. And this lack of experience has an affect on their ability to associate with those outside of it.
Let me put it to you a different way. A couple of years back, the Public Religion Research Institute did a study on the people individuals associate with and broke it down demographically. What they found was pretty polarizing. For the sake of simplicity, let’s say that a white person and a black person each had exactly 100 friends in life. The study found that this white person would only have ONE(out of 100) black friend. The black person would not fair much better, eight of their 100 friends would be white.
If you doubt these results, do me a favor. Next time you find yourself out at a social gathering or at a familiar setting, at a party or going out for drinks with friends, something like that. Look around you and notice everyone in the room. Are most of them of the same race? Are they mostly from similar backgrounds as yours? If you’re white, think about how many people of color that are in your life. Not just that one teller at the bank or the guy with the office/cubical next to yours. How many people of color are in your world and have an effect on your life? If you’re black, it’s honestly not too much different. The only thing is, we live in a world where we are the minority. It’s almost impossible for us to live in a world that is devoid of white people so many of us have been able to adapt. The same can’t be said for the majority.
Last week was one of the most tumultuous weeks America has experienced in years, probably decades. What started with the recorded shooting death of a black man by police, being the 558th such person this year, it was noticed by a few. Before it could be noticed by all, another recording surfaced on the following day of another black man dying on video due to being shot by the police. These extremely public shootings caused thousands across the nation to immediately protest these actions and the historic actions experienced by Black America. However, before the nation could even feel the affect of these protest, a lone and heavily armored and armed gunman, targeted, shot and killed law enforcement officers in Dallas, Texas in the latest of a long line of mass shootings in America. Since then, every citizen in this nation has struggled with the ability to grasp how to respond to each of these tragedies. Some seek to blame. Some seek healing. What we have to seek is a way to change our worlds.
The police officers who shot Alton Sterling and Philando Castille probably weren’t the racist of racist people. To be perfectly honest I’m am ABSOLUTELY sure that I would be able to get along with those guys just fine. They probably like football, watch Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. They probably have kids and have enough compassion to want to see them raised right. If not, they have people in their lives they do care for, which means they DO have the capacity for love. I cannot imagine they set out on their day last week to kill black men. What happened was they were put in a situation, where they faced an unknown, assumed the worst and acted accordingly. We all have the potential to do the same thing, especially if we are given an unknown entity. It is that unknown that would cause us to react irrationally or to react out of fear. Whenever I saw Mr. Snuffleupagus and screamed my little 4-year-old heart out that was out of fear. I’d see those large eyes, furry bloated body and trunk slowly creeping his way down the street and assumed the worse. I didn’t know any better. He was an unknown entity. And it is human nature to not only fear what we don’t know, but to react to it out of fear. And that’s what those police did. To them and to many others, we are the Mr. Snuffleupagus or the monster in the closet. However, if we took the time to re-evaluate our perspective, we’d realize there’s nothing to fear. We’d realize there is no moster in the closet. We’d realize that Snuffy was just Big Bird’s friend. But we don’t because we often do not take the time to broaden our perspective and make our world bigger.
Going back to Spider-Man, despite the Daily Bugle’s efforts, he is generally seen as a hero and no one’s afraid of him. But in the real world, our worlds can be so often segregated and monolithic and not even realize it. It is far to easy and extremely likely that if you are white in America, you can go through your daily life and not have a single impactful experience with any persons of color or culture. And when you are then put into a situation where you had to interact with someone different, you cannot relate or appropriately socialize with such a person. And when this persons takes actions that you are not accustom to, it can easily be misinterpreted or taken the wrong way with which it was attempted, which would cause them to react protectively and yes, aggressively. On the other side of the coin, Black America’s experience with white persons can also have an affect on their perceptions. If the only persons in our lives that were white were a cop coming to arrest us or our family, a teacher suspending us or giving us detention or a supervisor that is firing or reprimanding us, that too would have an effect. If our interactions is only limited to individuals who can often have an only adverse relationship with us, that could also color how we perceive all of that race in an adversarial light.
America, we have to make our worlds bigger. We cannot survive if the persons in our lives are just like us. That was not what this nation is about. We won’t be able to grow or learn if our lives continue to be monolithically white. Or black. Or latino. Or Asian. Or straight. Or Christian. That is how we stop weeks like last week from happening. We live in an ever-increasing multicultural society and we have to embrace it for our own sakes. Not just for the sake of acceptance. But for the sake of knowledge. If we are unable to recognize the humanity in others that are not like us, then we can only see them as a threat to our own humanity. And in the words of my favorite philosopher, “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” We have to realize that there is nothing to fear. Afterall, we’re only human.
Your Friendly Neighborhood Black (Hu)Man